13/02/2011 by etiennefish
So I’ve been in Haiti a week now. It’s been a different experience so far. As I write this, I’m sitting on the balcony at my hotel, in a t-shirt and flip flops (in February!) looking out onto blue skies and a bluer ocean. It seems almost like an idyllic paradise. Almost.
I flew out of Miami early on a Sunday morning. My flight was half full at best; an easy to identify mix between Haitians and foreigners; many of whose faces were literally glowing with a sense of naïve idealism that I’m already far too jaded to conjure up in my own. I found out later that most of them were from small religious NGOs, interested in a spreading their goodwill and faith in a country of the down trodden. For a week. I sort of had to fight down my automatic cynicism bubbling to the surface and stop talking with them.
As we prepared to touch down in Port-au-Prince, I sat glued to my window. My first impressions of the country were of dry, brown mountains, sprawling cities of tents of various sizes and shapes, and white U.N. vehicles, rolling down the arteries of the city like little worker ants. I was entering a new type of world.
I spent most of my first week here in Port-au-Prince, trying to sort through piles of paperwork, while attempting to understand where I fit into the machine that is WHO. I honestly couldn’t even tell you what I thought about the city. I didn’t see it.
Security is high, due to many, many factors currently at play here, and we were hidden away, kept safe behind walls and armed guards. I remember sitting on my bed the first night at the hotel, almost delirious from lack of sleep, watching a film on my computer. I looked up, the room slightly hazy through my mosquito net-encased position, the air conditioner rattled away and a couple of cats were dueling it out on the other side of my window, while a few rifle-clad guards did their best to stay awake. I just stared around me in amazement. How did I get here? I thought to myself. A couple days before I was bundled in duvets and multiple layers, shuffling through my house in my wool slippers. How surreal it was to suddenly be dumped on a small island halfway across the world. But here I was.
Port-au-Prince, for me, was like re-entering the world of the military. It was the routine of paperwork and bureaucracy on the way to field duty. It was the hurry up and wait mentality, and the constant feeling like I had no idea what was going on, but knew if I just followed the motions, someone else’s bigger picture would eventually snap into focus for me as well. Above all it was the UN base. If you just imagined that the peacekeepers all flew the flag of one nation on their shoulder patches, and that people were riding around in humvees instead of the ever-identifiable white U.N. land rovers and other SVU-like vehicles, then it was just like any other military base in the world. Strangely, I felt most comfortable there.
A day in the life of Port-au-Prince went like this: Wake up at the hotel, eat something, get shuttled to PROMESS (WHO headquarters), hang out there for a few hours, make a few trips to LOG Base (UN base), including for lunch and maybe to go to the PX there, get shuttled back to PROMESS, go to LOG base for dinner, get shuttled back to the hotel, go to bed.
It was all very tiring. The mix of languages (English, Spanish, French- and P.S., my French level is NOT sufficient for this experience. Sigh.), the exhaustion of jet lag, the mass amounts of reading, the confusion as to what to do next, the paperwork. I pretty much fell into bed every night and was asleep before my head hit the pillow.
On Friday, me, my new Canadian colleague (who will be the logistician in our little team), and our driver finally made the journey out of Port and down to the South East, where we will be spending the next few months of our lives in a town called Jacmel. It’s 3+ hour drive out of the capital, half of which is spent trying to leave the city. Which is massive and chaotic. It was like being visually assaulted from all directions at once. There were just people everywhere, along with animals, and actual rivers of rubbish alongside foodstuffs laid out on the ground for sale. Much of the architecture was reminiscent of any other poor tropical town I’ve ever been to, but the scale of the poverty and anarchy of life was definitely beyond what I think I’ve seen before. We reached a point in our trip out of the city where we could see bits and pieces of the sea for the first time. I had to keep my eyes trained on the water. It was the first break they’d had in what seemed like days.
A seemingly unending, and fairly treacherous drive through the deforested and dried out mountains marked much of the rest of our journey south. Haitian drivers don’t seem to have the same respect for a particular side of the road that most other nations do. There were many almost head on collisions as we had to negotiate which side of the road we were going to pass oncoming traffic on, while speeding up and down switchbacks that opened onto sheer cliffs. I’ll pretend I found this all very exhilarating.
Jacmel itself is a sleepy- seeming town, although there have been a number of demonstrations here recently. Carnaval season is getting underway, and I’m excited to have the chance to see it. We’re on the ocean, the weather is nice, the people seem friendly, and the sun is shining. Despite leaving the claustrophobic, prison-like feel of Port au Prince behind, though, it’s still hard to feel completely at ease. We have to be careful still and our rules are strict. Foreigners are not necessarily that well thought of here. Many people believe that it was white people that brought the cholera (and the subsequent death toll) to this country, and in many ways they’re not wrong (it is widely acknowledged that it was the Nepalese peacekeepers who unknowingly brought it), and therefore we must be on our guard. We can’t just wander about the city and get a feel for things. We can’t wander at all in fact. We must take a driver everywhere, and be sequestered within our hotel between the hours of midnight and 5 am due to our curfew. We can’t even go down to the beach below our hotel. It is off limits to us. But then again, most things are. It’s strange not to be able to really interact with the society that we are supposed to be aiding. It’s hard to give up so much personal freedom to do it.
In other news, we haven’t done much in the way of work yet. We arrived late on a Friday afternoon, and most people on the MINUSTAH (UN base) were leaving for the weekend. Our office was taken over by another organisation because they didn’t know if WHO was coming back to the region, despite there only being a week or so gap between workers, so we have to wait for Monday to try and sort that out, even though we’re sort of expected to work 7 days per week. The internet at the hotel doesn’t really work either, so we can’t communicate much with anyone or make introductions, although we did manage to grab a beer and chat with MSF people yesterday evening. Today is for relaxing and reading up on work-related documents. The real job will begin tomorrow. I hope I am ready for it.
As for right now, all I want to do is jump in the ocean. Instead I will have to content myself with merely enjoying the slight breeze and gazing out at it from afar. Maybe I will have a cold Prestige (delicious Haitian beer) later and try to find something not fried to eat.
PS- until I get a better internet connection, photos will have to wait.
- Cholera death toll in Haiti rises to 4,549 (lookatvietnam.com)